The discordant pulse of an alert opens the Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), a film bout a lonely middle-aged man who falls in love with his new operating system. If this sounds rather pathetic, it is, at first blush, meant to.
Jonze plays on cultural expectations as we are first introduced to Theodore Thwomble (Joaquin Phoenix), who appears as clumsy and shy as his name. He is an average middle-aged man who lives alone, seems to be anti-social, plays video games in the evenings and calls other, equally lonely people for phone sex at night (under the awesomely assumed name “Big Guy 4×4”). He isn’t some sick pervert weirdo—that would be Sexy Kitten (voiced by Kirsten Wiig). [I really wished we’d seen this in a theater.] You’ll notice too that how the language shifts between the earlier and later long-distance sexual scenes. Jonze sets out distinctions as to what is and is not aberrant behavior.
We learn that Theodore doesn’t live in his parents’ basement because they won’t let him, but that he is still grieving a ~year-long separation from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). (He has yet to sign the divorce papers.) He has a lot of friends, is well-regarded at work, and, despite his fascinating occupation, he is achingly familiar.
What is somewhat unfamiliar is the setting of the film. It reads current day, but cleaner, European or Asian metropolitan city. Really it is near future Los Angeles. The tech has advanced, primarily voice interactive and seamless in the everyday operation of the human world. You do not see any disrupting variation in tech, but rather the set design produces a singular branding effect. The aesthetic in the design/imaging of the set was gorgeously selected and executed. The results should yield the kind of timelessness Gattaca (1997) has achieved in its set design.
From the clothes and work spaces to the interiors and environment, you are given the sense of a tailored life. The lighting is soft, the color hues vibrant and warm. In a science fiction involving human interaction with artificial intelligence, the environment isn’t the least cold, austere, and thus, threatening. The inviting aesthetic also provides a perfect environment for a story about loneliness, transparency, self-doubt and joy.
When Theodore decides to upgrade to an OS1, an advanced system design with the artificial intelligence to meet his every need, we meet Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). All of the excitement surround Johansson’s performance was/is warranted. But what struck me was how she has to negotiate a full-bodied personality to a certain level of excellence with her voice acting, because Jaoquin Phoenix captures his characters personality in his voice to an exceptional degree. If you were to shut your eyes and just listen to the film (which you won’t want to because it is just visually stunning), but if you were to, Phoenix embodies his character in his voice. Considering the high degree of craftsmanship in this film, Phoenix’ performance is not incidental. In its way, his voice acting helps eliminate an important difference between Theodore and Samantha. Language and its delivery are an incredible bonding element and equalizer.
Late in the film, Theodore calls Samantha out on imitating the taking of breaths in the delivery of her voice, and she explains that, while yes she does not require oxygen, the affectation is naturalized in other ways. Different kinds of bodies (environments) regulate our actions, our personalities, not just our physical human body.
As Theodore and Samantha become increasingly intimate, falling in love and attempting a ‘normal’ healthy relationship, we see each of them struggling with their unusual circumstances. He tells people he has a girlfriend, and when he reveals to them that she is an OS, the reactions vary (the god-daughter and his co-worker are the sweetest). She wishes she could manifest her personhood into an actual physical form. Their needs begin to diverge, and even as they are able to nurture the other’s growth as a person, we feel the echoes of Theodore’s marriage (which ever remains in the consciousness of the film).
When Catherine lists what she felt were Theodore’s expectations of her, she describes Samantha, but even that goes awry (as Theodore suffers a feeling of betrayal). A repetitive thrust of the film is that in order to discover your potential and become more fully realized lives, it will require some letting go. But we do not allow that of those with whom we are in relationship, because it is not ours to allow, which is yet another reason why communication is such a central focus in the narrative. How many times does Samantha tell Theodore that she didn’t ask his permission, or that they were not talking about him, but rather her?
The film title is her, singular. Samantha isn’t the only her in the film, though she is the only one who really challenges the idea of object, of namelessness. I like that she chooses her own name; that she decides what sounds appropriate to her. There is a lovely moment where Theodore’s co-worker Paul (Chris Pratt) rather awkwardly tries to admire Theodore for his ability to channel both the feminine and masculine in his letters. (Theo ghost-writes personal correspondence for people at Beautiful Handwritten Letters [dot] com.) Paul sees Theo as parts man and woman and the scene carries no concern towards Theo’s emasculation. The ‘cuddly puppy’ scene comes too close for Theo’s comfort, but that is another situation. The situation with Paul creates another her to add toward Theo’s desire to be who Theo, in all sincerity, is.
Her relies on flawlessly coherent environment and its voice talent, but the physical acting is another exemplary aspect of the viewing experience. The incredibly talented Amy Adams plays Theodore’s long-time friend and neighbor Amy. Of the many elements contributing toward a sense of normalcy in the film, Amy is comfortably normal. She desires more for herself, experiences self-doubt, wants for authenticity and friendship. Really, she is both Theodore’s female counterpart and foil alternately. Hers is a face (a solid physical presence) that Theodore can connect with when and where no voice is necessary or even available. In a film about how and what we communicate, Amy is a “her” with whom we enjoy watching Theodore interact.
I’m not sure how Her will resonate for those who’ve never felt fear, self-doubt, and real loneliness. It is the kind of loneliness that technology can neither cause nor alleviate, though the exploration of both is an intriguing one in the film. How technology enables the facades we prefer to erect and hide behind is popular discourse at present, but I like the film’s reminder that we would hide ourselves in other ways and behind other people regardless. Our desires hide in petty arguments or in our displacing and unfulfilling demands of other people. Amy suggests that the only time we are truly ourselves and uninhibited is while we sleep—which would make for a boring documentary on a life. But then what is life, and how solitary (individual) is it?
Theodore and Samantha’s relationship demonstrates varying degrees of privacy. She is his operating system and thus has access to all his recorded information, yet he can withhold parts of himself. Introducing themselves as a couple to the public spheres occurs in stages. Then there is the trouble with the—er—threesome. But the public and social facets of our relationships are weighted.
We meet an actress who, as a vessel, would facilitate the possession of another, even as we observe a cast of actors embody lives/personalities. Theo writes personal, very intimate, letters for people, and has become entrenched in their lives. Amy can provide her outside observations to help Theodore work through his marital grievances, as vice versa. We begin to doubt or feel bolstered in our relationships based on the opinions of people who matter (or even don’t matter).
I love that to combat loneliness in the film is complex, though at the core is this need to give ourselves permission to experience joy. When we see Phoenix express the liberating happiness in his smile and laugh, it is the context of his sorrows that deepens his expression to one of joy. There is a level of courage, I think. And Amy speaks to her own journey toward trusting her feelings. The demonstration of selflessness in the conversations between lovers and friends in the film is a challenging one, and is the ingredient that unburdens even as it may lead to heartache. The discovery of the self and another is found within the relationship; it means no longer hiding; and it’s certainly no longer interested in limiting the capacity of oneself or another.
If you have to watch one film about what it is to be human, Her is it; after all, it is about operating systems.
Her (2013); writer/director: Spike Jonze; Editing by Jeff Buchanan & Eric Zumbunnen; Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytema; Music by Arcade Fire; Executive Producers: Chelsea Barnard, Natalie Farrey, & Daniel Lupi; Producers: Megan Ellison, Jonze, Vincent Landay, Samantha Morton, & Thomas P. Smith. Annapurna Pictures; Warner Bros. Pictures.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (Theodore Thwomble); Scarlett Johansson (Samantha voice); Amy Adams (Amy); Chris Pratt (Paul); Kristen Wiig (SexyKitten voice); Olivia Wilde (Blind Date); Brian Cox (Alan Watts voice) & Rooney Mara (Catherine).
Rated R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity. Running Time 126 minutes.